Future Reflections Winter/Spring 1997, Vol. 16 No. 1

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A Mother Fights For Her Son's Rights

by Keri Stockton

[PICTURE] Keri and Nicolas Stockton
[PICTURE] Nicolas enjoys the sand and the waves at the beach. He has no special problems with water at the beach or at a water park.

Introduction
by Barbara Cheadle, Editor

A conference at a beach resort in August with free full-time child care services--what more could a professional single parent want?

That's what Keri Stockton, a physician's assistant and the single parent of seven-year-old Nicolas, thought when she made her reservations for August, 1996, at the Ocean Dunes hotel in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. But the ideal situation began to turn into an ordeal even before Keri arrived at the hotel.

You see, Nicolas, a typical rambunctious and curious seven-year-old, also happens to be blind. Keri, who has been an active member of the National Federation of the Blind since Nicolas was a toddler, views blindness as no big deal. She neither makes a point of telling people about his blindness, nor does she avoid it. It sometimes comes up in conversation, sometimes not. For one reason or another his blindness did come up when Keri made a preliminary call to the hotel to sign Nicolas up for the day care service. And that's when the trouble began.

Nicolas, she was told by the day care director, would not be allowed in the program--for his own "safety" of course. When Keri appealed to the hotel management, she was told it was out of their hands. The hotel contracted with the RRTM company to provide the day care service; therefore the hotel, so management assured Keri, had no control over the day care service's policies.

Other parents with less knowledge about the rights and capabilities of the blind might have accepted this verdict or settled for less than full participation in the program, but not Keri. An active, knowledgeable member of the National Federation of the Blind and its parents division--the National Organization of Parents of Blind Children (she is the president of the West Virginia Parents of Blind Children)-- Keri knew the difference between legitimate safety issues and discrimination. This was discrimination. And so the battle was on.

First, Keri tried reason and negotiation. When that was only partially successful, Keri called the National Federation of the Blind. By that time Keri had negotiated to get Nicolas into the program as long as the children stayed on hotel property. The final point of disagreement was whether Nicolas would go, with no special supervision or liability waiver, with the other children on a much-anticipated trip to Water World on the final day of the conference.

Here is Keri's account, as edited from a letter Keri wrote two days before the water park trip was to occur and sent to Mr. Anderson, the Manager of the Dunes Hotel.

Following Keri's account we have reprinted the letter sent by David Houck, Executive Director of the National Federation of the Blind of South Carolina, to the hotel management. Mr. Houck enclosed with his letter a copy of the pertinent portions of the South Carolina White Cane law and an article about the NFB of South Carolina's victory in a lawsuit against a cruise line which had discriminated against a blind man in South Carolina. (The White Cane Law is civil rights legislation which the NFB sponsored decades before the Americans With Disabilities Act was passed.) Here they are:

August 14, 1997
Dear Mr. Anderson:

Some time ago I received information from the NCAPA of a conference for Physician Assistants being held at Ocean Dunes/Sand Dunes Resort, Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, from August 11-16, 1996. The information stated that a children's program would be available each day, "including healthy beach and water games, exploration trips to fun-filled amusement parks, and other downtown attractions." As this seemed to meet both my professional needs as well as my child care needs (I am a single parent), I made reservations for the conference and with the Ocean Dunes hotel.

Two weeks before my seven-year-old son, Nicolas, and I were to set out for Myrtle Beach, I called Guest Services to sign Nicolas up for the day care activities. During the conversation it came up that Nicolas was blind. At that point Ms. Hanna Moore, the child care director, said that Nicolas would not be allowed to participate in any child care activities at the hotel. The college-age staff had no experience with blindness, she said, and would not be comfortable assuming the responsibility for a blind child.

I protested that Nicolas did not need a different level of supervision and that he was quite capable of handling and enjoying all activities listed in their "Sandy's Club" flyer. I was told it was no use to protest; his exclusion was "for his own safety."

One week later I called again to try to reason through this situation. I spoke at length with both Ms. Moore and with Chris, one of the counselors. They finally agreed (rather reluctantly) to let Nicolas attend the child care program while in the hotel. However, he would not be allowed to participate in any water activities or go on any trips away from the hotel. As before, this was based solely on his blindness. Again I was told, "You must understand, Ms. Stockton, that it is only your son's safety we're concerned about." The implication was clear that I was not concerned about my child's safety! As with the previous phone call, nothing was resolved. And so we drove to Myrtle Beach with some reservation about the reception Nicolas would receive from the "Sandy the Sea Gull" child care staff.

Sunday, August 10, we arrived at the Ocean Dunes in the evening, and registered for our stay. Nicolas registered for the Sandy Sea Gull Club and received his t-shirt, cap, and wristband with excitement and pride. We then walked over to Sand Dunes to meet the child care staff. We met with Ms. Hanna Moore, Chris, Kathleen, and other staff. Nicolas and I were again told by Chris and Ms. Moore that Nicolas would not be allowed to participate in any water activities or off-grounds activities due to his blindness. Ms. Moore said that if I hired (and paid) a one-on-one child care provider to watch Nicolas and provided assurances to the hotel and the RRTM company that they were not liable for Nicolas, then they would allow him to go to the water park trip. One of the child care staff, Meridith, did offer to go with Nicolas to the water park (at my expense, of course). However, arrangements were not finalized since I still felt that all Nicolas needed was the same level of supervision appropriate to sighted seven-year-old kids.

On Monday I met with you and Mr. Ian Raymes, Sand Dunes assistant manager. I explained the situation and told you I had never run into such overt discrimination, and certainly hadn't expected to find it at the beach! I also told you how deeply concerned I was about the damage this episode is doing to Nicolas; he knows what's going on; and he knows that his sighted peers are not subject to this. You told me that Ocean Dunes/Sand Dunes had no responsibility for, and could do nothing about, the child care "policies"--your word--which exclude Nicolas' full and equal participation. This is so, you explained, since the hotel contracts for these services. You then suggested I visit the water park so I would see just why the child care staff was concerned. You said the water park might not even let Nicolas come at all and that this would not surprise you.

So, I called the Myrtle Waves Water Park and talked with Karen, the manager. She said you'd called and that she told you that their policy was to make the water park available to all people and that Nicolas would certainly be welcome. The water park, she said, has several blind patrons, including twin children from Conway, South Carolina, who are season members. Nicolas and I went down later Monday afternoon. After Karen showed us around the water park, Nicolas swam on almost all the rides for about three hours. He rode on the slow river, the wave pool, two slides (one with a tube and one without) as well as his favorite--the Rapid Racing River, a 10 mile per hour stream of water. He enjoyed them all, and needed no help beyond what other kids his age need in order to ride them successfully.

Much of my time on Tuesday was spent in the Guest Services office. Nicolas, however, was allowed to participate in the day care services--the Sandy Sea Gull Club--on Tuesday. He played games, searched for shells, painted shirts, and ate pizza along with the other kids. He had a great time! I was delighted to hear that he'd been allowed to participate in the swimming session in the hotel pool. Nicolas was very excited, and Chris and the other staff said he'd done well--no problems. But still, the water park was out.

Wednesday (today) Ms. Hanna Moore approached me at breakfast and said that Nicolas would not be going on the water park trip with the same supervision as the other kids. She said I had to hire and pay for a one-on-one child care person if he were to go. It was the company's decision. "You have to understand," she said, Nicolas is "special" and her company feared "liability." I told her that I did not have to understand or accept discrimination; in fact, I would never understand or accept it.

I dropped Nicolas at the child care area to hunt sea shells and went immediately to your office where I met with you and Mr. Daniels, the Ocean Dunes Assistant Manager. Again, I was told that you have no control of, or responsibility for, the actions and decisions of the RRTM company with whom the hotel has a contract for child care services. You said certain groups of children were denied service by RRTM, usually children with behavioral problems. "It's their policy," you said. Mr. Daniels said that there had been other handicapped kids in the child care program, but that their mothers always stayed with them. He asked me if I could go to the water park with Nicolas. I told him that I had come to Myrtle Beach for a conference but had actually been able to attend very little of it due to this situation. Nicolas was on the list of kids to go to Myrtle Waves. He had sat with the other kids on Monday and heard how, if you were good--really good--you'd get to go to the water park, the most fun place around. And Nicolas had been good all week; although, in his case, goodness was not the criteria for going--vision was. Mr. Daniels then asked if I would be willing to sign a waiver of liability, so that RRTM and the hotel would not be held accountable if Nicolas were injured or lost. I said I could not sign such a waiver as that implied that Nicolas needed a different level of supervision than the other children. I stated again that he needed the same supervision-- not more or less--than the other children.

As I have tried repeatedly to resolve this issue personally without success, I have contacted the National Federation of the Blind, an organization of blind persons which has much experience in combatting discrimination on all levels and works to insure for all blind people (including blind children) security, equality, and opportunity. I understand you will be hearing from them by fax, and I hope this input will help to resolve this situation ASAP. Under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and the South Carolina White Cane Law, Nicolas is entitled to equal opportunity and participation. If he is denied equal opportunity to attend the full child care program of Ocean Dunes/Sand Dunes due to his blindness, this hotel and its contracting company, RRTM, have violated both these state and federal laws. I am still hopeful this situation will be resolved without any such violations, but I do stand firm. I will not waive Nicolas' rights under these laws.

Please contact me as soon as possible, as the water park trip, as you know, is scheduled for Friday the 16th, from 9:30 a.m to 2:00 p.m. I look forward to our next meeting on this issue and hopefully to its appropriate resolution.
Sincerely,

Keri Stockton
cc: Barbara Cheadle, President, National Organization of Parents of Blind Children, National Federation of the Blind

David Houck, Executive Director, National Federation of the Blind of South Carolina

Don Capps, President, National Federation of the Blind of South Carolina


That's Keri's account up to Wednesday of her week at the Sand Dunes Hotel. On that same day David Houck, on behalf of the NFB of South Carolina, faxed the following letter to the hotel. With the letter he attached a copy of the pertinent sections of South Carolina's White Cane law and an article about a similar discrimination situation which the NFB of South Carolina successfully settled out of court. These items are reprinted following this conclusion of the story by Keri Stockton:

CONCLUSION
The morning after I called the NFB, Nicolas and I headed out to Mr. Anderson's office, toting a book tape recorder, headphones, five recorded books from The Wizard of Oz series, and a large bag of fidget-toys. We went prepared to camp out the entire day in his office if necessary. I had no intention of leaving until Mr. Anderson agreed to let Nicolas go, on equal terms, with the rest of the Sandy the Seagull Club kids to the water park.

We entered the outer office and promptly were announced to Mr. Anderson by his secretary. Mr. Anderson greeted us, and we entered his office and sat down. As I started to unpack Mr. Anderson spoke, "Nicolas is going to the water park," he said.

I stared at him for a moment and then carefully asked, "Under what conditions is he going to the water park?"

"The same as all the other kids," he replied.

I sat there not quite believing what I had just heard. Mr. Anderson explained how he had received a lengthy fax from this group called the National Federation of the Blind of South Carolina. The fax, he said, had referred him to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the South Carolina White Cane law. It had an article about a blind person who had turned to the NFB to secure the right to travel on a cruise ship just like any other passenger.

Mr. Anderson had faxed these papers on to the hotel's lawyers and then, at the lawyers' suggestion, he faxed them to the hotel's owner, who was in France at the time.

At that point, I did some quick mental calculations of the time zones and guessed that the owner was receiving the fax sometime in the wee hours of the morning. Poor man!

Mr. Anderson informed me that the word of the owner was clear, "Nicolas is to go to the water park, just like all the other kids."

We left the office with a handshake for Mr. Anderson and an excited whoop and holler from Nicolas.

The next morning, I watched Nicolas march to the hotel van with the rest of the children, and I smiled to see Mr. Anderson watching, too. That day I finally got to attend a full day of the conference I had come to attend and found it worthwhile.

When the afternoon drew to an end, I waited with camera in hand as the van arrived. Mr. Anderson waited, also. He looked nervous and anxious. He had paced back and forth, watching out the windows for the van's arrival. I wanted to assure him that everything would be fine, but before I could think of what I wanted to say the van pulled up in front of the doors. Sunburned pink and smiling from ear to ear, Nicolas stepped out of the van in the middle of a crowd of happy children.

Everything had gone smoothly. Nicolas gave Mr. Anderson (who now appeared a lot more relaxed) a big hug and promised to come back to Sandy the Seagull Club the following summer.

Mr. Anderson agreed; and you know, he looked as though he meant it!

All year Nicolas has received letters from Sandy the Seagull reminding him of his wonderful time at Myrtle Beach. I have just received notice of this summer's conference. If the budget holds out I believe I will go.

Like all parents I have many goals for Nicolas. I hope he will learn from situations like this, that he can defend his right to equality in a respectful and firm way. I know he is well aware of the NFB's commitment to equality, not only as an ideal, but as an individual's right.

This lesson, learned in childhood, of the need for strong laws--like the South Carolina White Cane law, the ADA, and the power of the NFB and its commitment to the goals of equality for all blind people (including children) have made a big impact on Nicolas.

As we walked back to our room that day to pack our things can you imagine what Nicolas was singing as he skipped ahead of me? The chorus to the "Battle Song of the NFB"--"Glory, Glory, Federation, our cause goes marching on!"

Reprinted below are the fax letter, the article, and the four pertinent sections of the South Carolina White Cane legislation:

Date: August 14, 1996
Fax To: Hugh Anderson, Manager
Sand Dunes Hotel, Myrtle Beach
Fax #: (803)447-6009

Fax From: David Houck, Executive Director
It has come to my attention through our National Office that a guest of your hotel, Keri Stockton, is having difficulty regarding her son Nicolas, who is blind, taking part in a water park field trip scheduled for Friday through your day care services. It is also my understanding that in order for Nicolas to go on the trip that he must be accompanied by a private aide hired by his mother or that his mother must sign a waiver of liability.

Under the statutes of the 1972 SC Model White Cane Law, a blind individual must be treated as any able-bodied person would be treated. Therefore, unless all the parents are required to sign such a waiver of liability or hire a professional assistant at their own expense, then neither should Nicolas' mother, Keri, be required to either. Please reference the enclosed White Cane Law which was a twenty year forerunner to the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Federal law follows suit with the White Cane Law in this regard.

I would advise strongly that the child be able to participate with the other children in the field trip to the water park. It is also my understanding that Nicolas is familiar with water parks which may not be the case for all the children who are going, blind or sighted.

As a blind person I have attended several camps for blind children. Operated wholly by blind counselors, there is not much we have not done at these camps with blind children including swimming, hiking, field trips, etc. I can attest to the fact that just because a child is blind does not disqualify him or her from full participation in most any activity. I feel that way about water parks as well.

Thank you for your attention to this matter. I hope that both Keri Stockton and her son, Nicolas, will enjoy their stay at the Sand Dunes Hotel and will choose to come again often. (6 pages to follow.)
cc: Barbara Cheadle, President, National Organization of Parents of Blind Children, National Federation of the Blind, Baltimore, MD

Keri Stockton

VICTORY IN THE CARNIVAL CRUISE LINES LITIGATION

The Palmetto Blind, February, 1990
In February, 1989, the Federation sponsored litigation against Carnival Cruise Lines on behalf of Joe Urbanek of Walterboro. In order for Mr. Urbanek to take the cruise, Carnival Cruise Lines required that a special release be executed by Mr. Urbanek which would have relieved Carnival Cruise Lines of any and all liability arising out of Mr. Urbanek's cruise. Mr. Urbanek's blindness was the sole cause of Carnival Cruise Lines insisting upon the special release being executed. Mr. Urbanek appropriately resisted and sought the assistance of the National Federation of the Blind of South Carolina and the National Federation of the Blind to fight the discriminatory policies of Carnival Cruise Lines.

Upon the filing of the litigation Carnival Cruise Lines took the position that they were not doing business in South Carolina and filed for a dismissal of the litigation on the grounds that South Carolina lacked jurisdiction. The court held otherwise. Carnival Cruise Lines appealed the decision to the Supreme Court of South Carolina. Meanwhile, it obviously became increasingly clear to Carnival Cruise Lines that their discriminatory policies against the blind and the handicapped would not be upheld by the courts. Thus, the strong position held by the Federation, coupled with the fears of Carnival Cruise Lines that they would not win this litigation, ultimately resulted in their abandoning their policy of requiring blind persons to sign any special release. On December 21, 1989, a Consent Decree filed in the Richland County Court of Common Pleas was executed, ending the Carnival Cruise Lines policy of discriminating against the blind.

Mr. Clifford O. Koon. Jr., member of the law firm, Rogers, Thomas, Cleveland, Koon, Waters, and Tally, which represents the NFB of South Carolina, writes in part as follows: "I am pleased that this matter was concluded favorably. I take particular pride in the language on page 4 which gives any citizen of the State of South Carolina the right to enforce this decree should Carnival fail to abide by it. This was a provision which we insisted be part of the settlement."

Mr. Koon also writes, "I am happy to tell you that we have settled the case with Carnival ... Carnival has agreed to change its discriminatory policies and to place handicapped persons on an equal plane with others. We are very happy with the victory in this case. We will, however, be monitoring Carnival Cruise Lines very closely to ensure that they give more than lip service to their policy change."

It is noteworthy that the Consent Order cites the Bill of Rights for the Blind Law sponsored by the National Federation of the Blind of South Carolina in the early 1970s, in reaching this settlement. This particular law is also referred to as the Model White Cane Law. In Section I of the Consent Order it states, "that this action was commenced by the plaintiff, Urbanek, on February 10, 1989, alleging that the defendant, Carnival, had engaged in certain discriminatory practices against Urbanek, a blind citizen of South Carolina, and other persons similarly situated, by requiring them to sign a special release form as a condition of passage on its cruise ships, in violation of South Carolina's Bill of Rights for Handicapped Persons Section 43-33-510 et seq. South Carolina's Code of Laws for 1976."
Once again, it is clear that legislation sponsored by the National Federation of the Blind of South Carolina, and which became law, is very important as it protects blind citizens against discriminatory practices based solely on blindness. It should also be apparent to anyone that the Federation will enforce the law through court action, if necessary, in the interest of blind persons being treated fairly and on a nondiscriminatory basis.

Statutes at Large of South Carolina, General and Permanent Laws--1972 (R1646, H3071) No. 1425
An Act Granting Rights To Blind Persons As To Access And Enjoyment of Public Buildings, Conveyances, Housing Facilities, Use of Guide Dogs; And To Provide For White Cane Safety Day.

Be it enacted by the General Assembly of the State of South Carolina:

SECTION 1. Policy of State.--It is the policy of this State to encourage and enable the blind, the visually handicapped, and the otherwise physically disabled to participate fully in the social and economic life of the State and to engage in remunerative employment.

SECTION 2. Rights of blind and other handicapped person.--

(a) The blind, the visually handicapped, and the otherwise physically disabled have the same right as the able-bodied to the full and free use of the streets, highways, sidewalks, walkways, public facilities, and other public places;

(b) The blind, the visually handicapped, and the otherwise physically disabled are entitled to full and equal accommodations, advantages, facilities, and privileges of all common carriers, airplanes, motor vehicles, railroad trains, motor buses, street cars, boats or any other public conveyances or modes of transportation, hotels, lodging places, places of public accommodation, amusement or resort, and other places to which the general public is invited, subject only to the conditions and limitation established by law and applicable alike to all persons;

(c) [This part is about guide dogs]

SECTION 3. Duties of motorists.--...

SECTION 4. Certain action unlawful.--Any person or the agent of any person who denies or interferes with admittance to or enjoyment of the public facilities enumerated in Section 2 or otherwise interferes with the rights of a totally or partially blind or otherwise disabled person under Section 2 shall be guilty of a misdemeanor.

SECTION 5. White Cane Safety Day.--...

SECTION 6. Employment in State service.--...

SECTION 7. Housing accommodations_no discriminations.--...

SECTION 8. Time effective.--...

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